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Karl W. Giberson


The Warden of Time and Space

Part 3: Summing Newton up.

In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire & whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but that this power must extend much farther than was usually thought. Why not as high as the moon said he to himself & if so that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit.—John Conduitt

How does one evaluate the accomplishments of a figure so large as Isaac Newton, particularly when those accomplishments themselves are beyond all but the most mathematically sophisticated of biographers? How does one chronicle the life of someone who walked so infrequently on ordinary roads and spent so much time on detours of his own devising? And, in the ultimate of biographical challenges, how does one begin to assess the impact of the latter on the former—the essential task of those who would profile the life and times of the truly great?

We can't escape limitations of time and place and intellect, but we can at least enlarge our vision by taking a stroll through the fields and forests of Newton's biographers, seeing him as others have seen him. Undertaken fully, this would require a very long book, but even a rough reconnaissance of the territory may be worthwhile.

Newton had a very beautiful niece who lived with him and ran his household for much of his life, particularly during the time that he was working at the Mint. Her name was Catherine Barton, and in 1717 she married John Conduitt, who succeeded Newton as Master of the Mint in 1727. Conduitt was not a man of science, but he did know a great deal about the latter part of Newton's personal life. Conduitt was thus the first and, for a rather long time, the most influential of Newton's many biographers.

Newton scholar Rupert Hall has produced a marvelous little volume titled Isaac Newton: Eighteenth-Century Perspectives (Oxford University Press, ...

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